Preconceived opinion not based on reason or experience.
I admit I used to be prejudiced towards gillnet fisheries. I used to believe that all gillnet fisheries should be shut down, period. In my defense, all I knew of gillnets were the injuries that they can cause. During my time as a volunteer for the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center from 2007-2011, I personally rescued over 20 sea lions with gillnet entanglements. Although 100% of these animals were eventually released alive, the sites and smells of those injuries throughout the rehabilitation process still haunt me to this day. I didn’t understand why gillnet fisheries still existed and I was hungry to learn more. And thus began my incredibly humbling journey to learn more about California’s set and drift gillnet fisheries which target swordfish, thresher sharks, halibut and white seabass.
I’m telling my story for a couple reasons. First because I know a lot of folks share my intense passion and genuine intention to help preserve our world’s oceans, but like me are not very sure where and how to start. I want to share some lessons I learned the hard way in an effort to prevent you from wasting your time. I’m also writing this because I think it’s scary how easy it is for someone that knows very little about shark fisheries to be considered an “expert” on the subject with the power to influence other like-minded conservationists. And finally, I want to show how it’s possible (and quite necessary) for shark conservationists to understand and support responsible shark fishing. This is contrary to popular belief for most so if you disagree I urge you to read on. The only problem is that my story is so complicated that I split it into two parts so please stay with me.
I’ll admit it, like many other shark conservationists my journey began once I saw the documentary Sharkwater. Although I cringe at the sound of Sharkwater now for many reasons, this film was my introduction to shark finning and seeing it for the first time in 2008 changed my life to say the very least. This film made me very upset and sparked my obsession to learn more about sharks in an effort to help save them. I wasn’t sure where to start so I just Googled “how can I volunteer for a shark conservation group?”
I remember the top three websites that came up were Sea Shepherd, Oceana and SharkSavers. I filled out online applications for all three sites and mentioned that I was a graphic designer. I heard back almost immediately from SharkSavers and next thing I knew I was doing illustrations of sharks for a shark conservation themed activity book for children as well as some other projects. The folks I met from SharkSavers were like rockstars to me and I cherish those memories to this day. Using my artistic talents to help protect what I love was instant satisfaction for me, but soon I felt the need to do even more. I wanted to help end shark finning and I wasn’t convinced that my illustrations were helping.
So I decided to call all sixteen Chinese restaurants in Santa Barbara, California (my hometown) to see if any of them served sharks fin soup. After hearing “no” from the first fifteen restaurants, the last one told me that it was not on their menu but they could serve it for me if I had several guests with me as long as I give them one weeks notice. This got me thinking about whether or not the other restaurants I had spoken to would offer the same service. So, I called the all fifteen of the other restaurants back and disguised my voice as a woman wanting to have a party with sharks fin soup prepared. To my surprise, seven of the restaurants said they would serve me the soup. My detective work had payed off, but this was bitter sweet as I was disgusted to learn that sharks fin soup was being served at restaurants I had eaten at many times. So now I had a list of eight restaurants in Santa Barbara that served sharks fin soup and eight restaurants that did not. So now what?
I started a website called SharkFreeSB.com in 2009 with the intentions of persuading these eight restaurants to stop serving the soup. The home page of my site listed the eight restaurants that served the soup in red, as well as the eight “shark-free alternative” restaurants listed beside it. I printed out some sharks fin informational handouts that I downloaded from websites that were in both English and Chinese. I personally met with all of the owners of these restaurants in an attempt to educate them about the issue with hopes they’d pull it from the menu. I was not successful in this regard, yet my website was getting international attention by this time.
I was contacted by a prominent shark conservation website across the pond who asked permission to list my website on theirs as an example of what everyone should be doing in their hometown. Next, a shark conservation group in Los Angeles asked me to give a presentation about my website campaign to a large audience. Then a woman in Saint Louis, Missouri contacted me asking if she could “steal” the template of my website for an identical campaign in her town, so I ended up designing her a logo and website for free. Even though in the grand scheme of things I really had no idea what the hell I was doing or even talking about at this point (and still don’t), just hearing that I was actually influencing folks was enough to make me feel like I was doing the right thing. This inspired me to carry on with the website.
It wasn’t long before the sight of thresher and mako shark meat for sale in Santa Barbara caught my attention. After some minor research on California’s shark fisheries, I noticed that all of them had a similar pattern in landings that didn’t sit right with me. I noticed the steep increase in landings followed by a steep decline in landings in all of our shark fisheries and assumed these were boom-and-bust fisheries. All I had heard about shark meat up to this point was that it was unhealthy due to mercury concerns. I noticed some markets and restaurants in Santa Barbara sold shark meat and others didn’t, so I decided to expand my website to include shark meat on it’s lists with the intention of getting all shark meat out of town. At the time, it sounded like a great idea to me as well as all of my new shark buddies. But was it really a good idea, or was I getting in over my head?
Many people in Santa Barbara have two jobs in order to make ends meet and I have a few close friends I grew up with that are part-time commercial fishermen. Even though I knew they targeted halibut, I knew nothing about what else they caught. I told one of my buddies about my website and my intentions to shut down our local shark fisheries and was surprised to hear that he regularly catches thresher sharks on accident when trolling for halibut. He said that he gets around $8.00 per pound for live halibut and around $1.00 per pound of shark. I learned that when he is not able to catch halibut, the thresher sharks he catches on accident are essential to making his fishing trips worth his time.
I told my friend that thresher sharks were over-fished and suggested that he could make more money by bringing folks to dive with thresher sharks rather than killing them. My SharkSavers contacts put me in touch with shark diving big shot Jim Abernethy and photographer Shawn Heinrichs who said they would pay my friend for a “fact finding mission.” My friend was not as confident about being able to bring folks to where these elusive sharks were on a consistent basis and said visibility would be an issue so the idea eventually fizzled out.
In 2009 I learned of a group in Santa Barbara that was going around to restaurants and educating chefs about “sustainable” seafood in an effort to promote the sales of local seafood in local restaurants. I told them about my website and I ended up partnering with them as their “shark expert.” My job was to basically break the news to chefs that they could not be in our program if they served shark meat of any kind. I thought this was a no-brainer because at the time all shark meat was on the Seafood Watch “avoid” list so it must be bad, right? But after a very pointed question from one chef, I realized seafood choices are anything but a no-brainer. The chef asked me, “So you say I can’t serve this thresher shark meat because it’s not sustainable, but you say it’s OK to serve this halibut that was caught it the same net as the sharks? I don’t get it.”
I didn’t get it either. I don’t remember what I told the chef after that, but I said enough for him to remove local thresher shark from his menu. What I do remember is walking away feeling very dirty. For the first time I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?” “ How did I get here?” “Am I really doing the right thing?” This gut check was another life-changing moment.
Around this time I decided not to renew my web hosting for SharkFreeSB.com. In other words, I decided to shut my site down temporarily until I could reassess my goals for the site. I decided to hit the books and really study California’s drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and sharks in search of some answers. Rather than just looking at landing records, I decided to dig into how this fishery is managed and why it exists. It wasn’t long before I was speaking with folks at NOAA and they directed me to an overwhelming amount of information. As overwhelming as it was, it was also fun as hell to learn about such a complicated and interesting fishery.
Then Hawaii passed a bill to ban the sale, possession and distribution of sharks fins. Although I was still on the fence about shark meat, I was still very much against shark finning and saw this as a huge victory for sharks. I was contacted by my shark friends who invited me to a meeting in Long Beach with the objective of enacting similar legislation in California. This was a meeting of the minds that included former Senator Hee of Hawaii, pioneer shark diver Stan Waterman, the artist Wyland, as well as some shark conservation bigshots such as Stefani Brendl and Shawn Heinrichs.
Again I asked myself, “How did I get here?” Fortunately, by this time I was armed with enough info about California’s shark fisheries to feel somewhat worthy of attending the meeting. I still didn’t know much about our shark fisheries but I knew more than anyone in the room, which is pretty scary. By the end of the meeting we decided to call ourselves the California Shark Coalition and California Assembly Bill 376 was born that day. We were eventually given individual tasks and titles and I was to be the “Fisheries Liaison.” My job was to increase support of the bill from local fisherman and reduce their opposition. The problem with this is that even though I had done quite a bit of research about California’s shark fisheries by this point, I still hadn’t spoken with an actual shark fisherman other than my buddy. But that was about to change, fast.
In light of the meeting in Long Beach, I decided to temporarily turn my website back on so that other members of the California Shark Coalition could see who I was. Even though my website did not fully represent my views at the time, we live in a world where everyone Googles one another and I needed some kind of identity at the meeting. The tough decision to put the site back up turned out to be a blessing in disguise because all of a sudden a local gillnet fisherman who catches sharks contacted me after coming across my website. You can chalk up this conversation and the relationships that followed as life-changing moment number three.